The Kills want to sex you up.
Magic Stick, Detroit, April 29, 2003
The heady crawl of “Venus in Furs” will make a nun sweat. The song’s torn, dirty lingerie is that dark spot in the corner of the civil servant’s eye, the cock ring collection inside his false-bottom’d drawer. It’s a hooker at the bus stop across the street from church, who no one looks at but everyone sees. The Kills have been equally lauded and derided for their particular Velvet Underground fetish. But while too many types have siphoned gas from the Velvets’ tank, it’s less often that they light the hose and laugh. With only a handful of recordings and less than half a band, the duo of Hotel and VV have cooked and smoked the purified sex of “Venus in Furs,” and left their kit on the convent steps.
After her gig as the lead singer of emo-punk also-rans Discount dissolved, Florida-based vocalist Alison Mosshart began trading tapes with British guitarist Jamie Hince. Mosshart eventually moved to the UK, where she and Hince continued to record as a duo. Percussion was added through the miracle of a drum machine, but the Kills were focused on each other. After a well-received handful of demos and EPs, Rough Trade issued the band’s debut full-length in spring 2003. Now calling himself Hotel, Hince’s shards of primal blues-punk guitar sliced into the long snake moan of Mosshart, who was now VV. Songs like “Cat Claw” and “Pull a U” ran the Velvets through Jesus and Mary Chain, and gave VV plenty of opportunities to do her Patti Smith impersonation. The influences were easier to pick out than a Japanese cowboy. Nevertheless, Keep on Your Mean Side was some gritty rock and roll shit.
On Tuesday night at the Magic Stick, the Kills’ legitimacy became clear. Arranged in an engorged delta, Hotel and VV faced off like lovers with half their limbs chained to a bed. Greasy hair draped across her face, crumpled cigarette shaking at the end of a long skinny arm, VV deep throated the mic as Hotel’s gun hand stroked his Fender. With his two amps and her filtered, distorted vocals, the Kills were loud enough that their drum machine/third member became an afterthought. “Superstition” and “Fried My Little Brains” bled from the monitors like busted eardrums. When VV ended the former with a throaty scream, she became a heroin-chic banshee that somehow made grimy as fuck look sexy.
The fact that the Kills do employ a drum machine might contribute to their mean street cred. As the duo has no use for anything more elaborate than dirty sex and guitars, the robotic tick of the drums might add a stylized twist to an otherwise-played trick. Digital drums sticking their fingers down the throat of analog blues, or something like that. More likely, that robotic Neal Peart can go all night — the better to keep up with VV and Hotel’s sleazy bender. On stage, the duo didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves, despite a vocal, appreciative crowd. Hotel’s eyes alternated between bugged out reactions to his churning power chords and dark, darting flashes of anger towards the board, as sound issues plagued the set. VV would often collapse her lithe frame over the mic stand, and stare at Hotel and his herky-jerky stage moves. When she picked up a guitar midway through the set, the two played the classic lead guitarists-trading-notes filmstrip backwards, and let a cigarette burn through the emulsion. Watching them watch each other — oblivious to yet flirting with the audience — their music began to illicit that clammy sense of anticipation that defines the Velvets’ “Venus in Furs.” Everyone has secrets — inside a hatbox, behind a vent in the garage — and the unthinkable always becomes doable behind closed doors. The Kills are inside that bedroom at the end of the hall, where the red light from the broken neon outside slants through the blinds. They’re doing something in there, something… inappropriate. Most people would close the door, shut it tight. The Kills? They keep it ajar, so that harsh red cuts into the hall, and it’s clear that you can come in if you want to see.